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UA apparel design students place in soy textile competition

Kasandra Wright's design placed first in the Nextile competition for college students.
D. Caruth
Kasandra Wright's design placed first in the Nextile competition for college students.

University of Arkansas apparel students Kasandra Wright and her classmate Annalise Robins recently took part in the 'Nextile: Soy in textile design challenge,' a contest held by the United Soybean Board. The goal was to expose design students to soy-based materials and to help them think more about integrating sustainable products.

"I'm very passionate about sustainability," Wright said. "So I was very like hands on like yes, let's do this. Let's see what we can do with this"

The competition for college students across the U.S. was broad - entrants could create anything within the textile industry, from clothing to upholstery to car interiors - but Wright explained there were some specific parameters.

"They sent us a box," Wright said. "We didn't know what was coming, it is a mystery. And we have three weeks as soon as we open the box, we have three weeks to make something out of it"

And Robins said the materials in those boxes were unlike anything she's worked with before.

"So we received fabric, we received crayons, wax," she said. "Embroidery thread, pleather, the fabric natural pigment dyes"

And all of those products were made from soy protein. Both Robins and Wright said they had to find ways to make the products work for their vision, which meant research and experimentation.

"This is the first time that I've used anything soy based," Wright said. "And so there was a whole other ballgame in comparison to like cellulose types of fibers which is like cotton and linen. It reacts different. And what was really cool too, that soy soy textile itself serves as an antibacterial textile, it has a soft hand it was very durable, stretchable like it's a really great replacement"

One big challenge, Robins said, was manipulating the material to work for her design and learning how to use new techniques.

"I had done some stuff like this before," Robins said. "But definitely, it was a challenge. So lots of research also videos and learning how to do it how to thread fibers into yarn, which is something I never thought that I would do honestly, but it was very fun."

And Wright said she ended up making her own soy milk in order to dye the fabric.

"As I saw the soy wax, and the dye I was like I want to batik," she said. "Where you take soy wax and you melt it in a decanting tool, it will melt the wax and you make a design onto your fabric. And once you let the wax like set and dry, that's whenever you can dye the fabric once that has been set. So I had to make soy milk separately for the pigment for it to bind to the fabric as well it serves as a protein based binder for the fabric."

So, while this may seem like some obscure arts and crafts project, both Wright and Robins said understanding and showing how to commercially utilize sustainable materials like soy is an important skill.

"Just knowing that the textile industry is a number two polluter behind oil and gas," she said. "This competition it's not only addressing sustainability, but it's also addressing how to be creative with it. And that intersectionality is really how I think we can see it difference, we address that creativity is a big part of this and how we can bring people to want to move forward in sustainability."

According to an analysis from The United Nations Environment Program, fashion production accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions, while 85% of all textiles in production end up in a landfill each year.

"So over time this will naturally break down versus synthetics," Wright said. "So this was amazing to be able to, like, research and show what we can do with this."

Also, doing this kind of work in Arkansas takes on its own significance. The state is in the top 10 soybean producers in the country, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It's also the state's most widely grown crop, with more than 3 million acres harvested in 2023.

Robins said doing this project where the raw material is at the forefront also helps to show how different disciplines and industries are connected.

"Also, Dale Bumpers College," Robins said "its agriculture, as well as home economics and kind of understanding why we are so connected to each other, I think is really cool and important."

Wright and Robins placed in the top two spots for the University of Arkansas, which earned them a $500 and $250 scholarship, respectively. Now Wright's first place design is representing the UofA in the national competition, which will be announced in March.

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>